The power of the ‘universal’: caste and missionary medical discourses of alcoholism in the Telugu print sphere, 1900–1940

Sriraman, Tarangini. 2023. The power of the ‘universal’: caste and missionary medical discourses of alcoholism in the Telugu print sphere, 1900–1940. Medical History, 67(4), pp. 324-346. ISSN 0025-7273 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

This article explores missionary medical discourses in three Telugu journals published in the early twentieth century, to analyse how caste pivoted denunciations of alcohol, especially toddy and arrack, in the Madras Presidency and the Hyderabad state. It argues that one women’s missionary journal, Vivekavathi, deployed medical knowledge to formulate subtle and occasionally explicit condemnations of toddy and arrack as unclean and unhealthy substances. The journal relied on universal medical and missionary, British and American knowledge frameworks to mark out Dalits and other marginalised castes as consumers of these local beverages. This stigma was conjured through medical narratives of marginalised castes as lacking in the knowledge of alcohol’s relation to digestion, toddy’s role in ruining maternal and child nutrition, the unhygienic environment of arrack shops and their propensity to ‘alcoholism’. However, this article also traces counter-caste voices who too invoked ‘the power of the universal’ to dispel caste stigma against marginalised castes. While both sets of voices deployed medical ‘enslavement’ to alcohol as an interpretive move, they differed in their social imperatives and political imaginaries, defined in caste terms. This article explores a third set of implications of the term ‘universal’ by analysing global medico-missionary narratives of alcohol in two other Telugu journals. On a methodological plane, this article also pushes for a hybrid reading of what counts for ‘scientific instruction’, where hymns, catechisms, parables and allegories are considered alongside conventional scientific experiments. In that sense, it upholds vernacular missionary publications as an invaluable resource for the social history of medicine

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This research was funded in whole, or in part, by the Wellcome Trust (grant number 223568/Z/21/Z). For the purpose of open access, the author has applied a CC BY public copyright licence to any author accepted manuscript version arising from this submission.

Data Access Statement:

Data supporting this study are not publicly available due to archival policies in Indian states.


missionary medical discourses, caste, alcohol, toddy, arrack

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23 July 2023Accepted
13 October 2023Published Online
October 2023Published

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Date Deposited:

16 Oct 2023 08:32

Last Modified:

16 Oct 2023 08:32

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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